Monday, October 15, 2001

Of Men and Of Angels: Ireland of the 1840s

Of Men and Of Angels, the second book in Bodie and Brock Thoene's Galway Chronicles series, continues the story of Ireland's tenant farmers in the early 1840s, a time of conflict between the ruling English and the subjugated Irish. The first book, Only the River Runs Free, introduces the people of Ballynockanor, Galway County, Ireland, and especially the Donovan family. Joseph Connor Burke, the true heir to the Burke land estates, was believed dead at the hands of his wicked Uncle Marlowe, who killed Joseph's father and usurped his power. But in 1842 he returns to his home of Ballynockanor, and by the end of Only the River Runs Free has been established as the rightful heir. Now, with a more benevolent landowner, the people of Ballynockanor have a better year in store for them. Or so they think.

But as this second book unfolds, 1843 has just as many problems of its own, another year with its own sorrows and troubles. The story picks up immediately where Only the River Runs Free ended; the Galway Chronicles should definitely be read in sequence to more readily understand the story and characters. Kevin Donovan is about to leave for America -- his punishment for his actions against the Marlowes in the previous book. All of Ballynockanor gathers for Kevin's American Wake, a great goodbye celebration. Anyone going to far away America might as well be dying, since nobody expects to ever see him again.

Kevin soon leaves, and life goes on for the rest of the community. Joseph reduces the rent and allows payment at a pavilion on the Burke estate, a friendlier atmosphere than Marlowe's. He starts up his school for the Irish children -- sparing them the terrible English National School -- in his mansion, and even hires Mad Molly as one of his servants. A wet nurse tends Bridget's infant son, Tomeen, now Joseph's child, and the gossip around town is that Joseph really is little Tom's father.

Historical figure Daniel O'Connell (1775 - 1847), an Irish politician, takes a more prominent role in this story, as the "Great Liberator" presses for Repeal of the Union with England. By the hundreds of thousands, the Irish tenants from all over Ireland gather at rallies, to hear O'Connell proclaim freedom. Over 40 such "monster" rallies in fact took place in 1843, including the Tara rally featured in the story, and many such rallies brought in crowds over 100,000. As also featured in this story, when the British troops came out to oppose the gathering at Clontarf that October, O'Connell, pledged to non-violence, acquiesced and sent the people home.

Yet opposition comes from the English ruling class, who would love to see an "Ireland without the Irish." Spies infiltrate O'Connell's campaign, trying to push the Repeal Movement to violence so as to charge O'Connell with sedition and treason. Joseph, too, as a supporter of Repeal, finds himself targeted and narrowly escapes death many times. Can he trust even his own servants in his household?

Of Men and Of Angels, like the first book, also portrays the lives of ordinary Irish Catholic peasants. They are indeed poor, uneducated, and very superstitious. From this story we learn that bread made from flour and ground-up, pulverized frogs, was thought to ward off the fever on a long sea voyage. Also, possession of a newborn baby's caul would prevent drowning.

Interesting facts about the dreaded smallpox are brought out as well. Though smallpox vaccination had been around for about 40 years, only the wealthy and educated had received the inoculation. Dairy farmers never caught smallpox because they contracted cowpox, a lesser form of the related disease. Thus, as Edward Jenner had discovered years earlier and the Ballynockanor people learn from a Tinker (O'Neill), infection with cowpox saves people from catching the deadlier smallpox.

Understood by the characters is the long history of Ireland: the 800 plus years since King Brian was killed, also the long reign of the Burke family. The book's prologue describes the fateful day in early Ireland, the year 1014, when King Brian Boru, son and grandson were slain in battle against the Vikings, betrayed by a man named O'Toole. Mad Molly in particular treasures the old stories, often confusing the present day people and places with those of long ago. Yet through her madness she demonstrates knowledge of spiritual things unseen by the others: of the presence of angels, even the nature of other men, as to whether they be good or evil. Molly and the others of Ballynockanor are all part of the Irish heritage, and this story provides an exciting story of ordinary people in troubled times.

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